US and global tech companies have repeatedly bowed to legislative imperatives put forward by the EU. This means that no matter where you live, there is a good chance the EU will be making laws that affect how you use technology today. For example, speaking recently about EU-approved legislation that will come into force in 2024, Apple’s vice president of worldwide marketing, Greg Joswiak, made the strong assertion that:
“Obviously, we’ll have to comply, we have no choice…”
The regulation in question relates to USB-C chargers, the new EU law will mandate the use of USB-C charge points on a wide range of electronic devices including mobile phones, tablets, and headphones. With Apple having already stated that it will bend the knee to this new EU regulation and kill the Lightning cable for good, the question arises, where does the EU get this power from and why do big tech companies in the US and elsewhere have to follow European law? Let’s check it out.
It is not just phone chargers either, but rather Europe has been consistently making moves to regulate tech and digital tech altogether in a bid to protect EU citizens from the risks associated with living in an increasingly online world. Cybersecurity has been a big focus of the EU with increasing threats putting institutions such as hospitals and schools in the crosshairs of some of the world’s deadliest cybercriminals. Another focus has been the promotion of ethical AI, which contrasts against the corporate AI surveillance systems being developed in the US and the state AI surveillance systems being developed in China. So, according to the EU, these regulations are focused on European countries and the citizens who live there.
What makes Apple obviously have to comply with these EU regulations is the size and wealth of the market that the EU represents. As we have already mentioned, these regulations only apply in Europe, it is not like a law passed in Brussels has to be applied in Washington DC. The issue is that there are so many people in Europe who buy iPhones that Apple cannot simply write them off as lost revenue because Lightning charging points aren’t allowed over there. Rather, Apple will have to make at least enough iPhones with USB-C charging ports to meet the demands of the European market.
Having to split manufacturing processes, however, brings with it its own set of problems with most of the savings that actually make producing and selling hardware devices profitable coming from producing them at scale. The more of something you produce, the cheaper each unit costs. Having to split production between two different types of iPhone will cost a lot of money. This means that as there is no regulation in the US mandating a particular type of charger there is no legal imperative to stick with the Lightning cable, despite the company’s desire to stick with what it sees as a very elegant and proprietary charging solution. The result is that when Apple complies with the EU regulation in 2024, it will likely switch all iPhone and iPad charging ports, even those in the US and outside of Europe, to USB-C.
This type of law-making leverage makes the EU a regulatory superpower. It is able to regulate markets that are valuable and large enough for companies to have to fall into line with. If your company doesn’t have customers in the EU, you won’t have to follow EU regulations. If it does well then you won’t have much choice.
EU tech regulations in action
The most famous of the global EU regulations to date is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The GDPR came into effect on May 25, 2018, and extended many data privacy safeguards all around the world. Ever since the proliferation of internet companies like Facebook and Google and their targeted-ad supported revenue streams, user data has become a valuable commodity. Accordingly, many companies around the world enacted a wide variety of harmful and risky data practices that targeted user data, sold it on to third parties, and put it at risk of being stolen.
To try and protect EU citizens from these harmful and risky practices the EU drafted and enacted the GDPR to place obligations on data controllers, establish rights for data subjects (the people like you and me whom these companies are collecting data on), and impose requirements that need to be met when transferring data outside of the EU. Interestingly, GDPR applies to all types of data meaning sharing analogue data such as that recorded manually would also form a breach of GDPR. However, it is the types of data websites, apps, and online services collect that most compellingly fall within the reach of GDPR. If you have a website that collects data from users in the EU to sell to advertisers, then that website will be affected by GDPR. Websites are slightly different to manufacturing processes and, accordingly, we do see websites in different parts of the world that no longer work in the EU. Rather than making their websites GDPR compliant, some companies have simply blocked EU citizens from accessing them.
Implications for the future
Well beyond the fact that soon iPhones and iPads will soon have USB-C charging ports just like Android devices, there are other big things on the horizon coming out of the EU. As the GDPR focuses on data. There are certain sections of the regulation that discuss the use of data by automated systems and the rights of individuals when it comes to automated decisions being made that will affect them. The EU, however, is actively pursuing the development of ethical and responsible AI that fits with the values of the EU. To do so, it is currently drafting a new law called the EU AI Act, which will be the first full AI regulation drafted and enacted anywhere in the world.
The use of AI has been proliferating at an increasing pace in recent years becoming more and more involved in many different aspects of our life including deciding the posts that we see in our social media feeds, the recommended songs and shows that we see on streaming platforms like Spotify and Netflix, and even much more serious applications such as deciding whether we qualify for a job, are able to access welfare payments, and even whether we can go to school or hospital. With automated systems gaining more and more control over our lives, the EU is moving to regulate the technology using a risk-based approach that outright bans some high-risk applications of AI, and the hope in Brussels is that it will mark the first global regulation of the new technology.
The idea that the US innovates, and the EU regulates it is a bit of a cliché these days, but there certainly are words of truth in there. There is simply no appetite in the US to regulate tech firms like there is in Europe. The flip of this is that Europe is incredibly envious of the innovation coming out of the US and you can see that in many ways the EU is trying its hardest not to stand in the way of regulation with its laws and regulations. It is also worth mentioning here that companies and civil society are all pushing to influence the EU’s regulations as they are being drafted, which means it isn’t a case of hegemonic power. In fact, the EU has been pushing for unified charging port regulation for a decade, originally pressuring Apple to adopt the inferior Micro-USB port. The tech giant pushed back and claims that neither the Lightning nor USB-C ports would have been innovated if it hadn’t done so. It seems the laws and regulations coming out of the EU then, are not simply foisted onto the world but rather developed in tune with global issues and with global voices in the regulators’ ears. Yes, obviously Apple will have to comply with EU law, but only after it has already incorporated USB-C charging ports into many Apple products such as the Macbook.
Image via: YouTube